I was in high school when The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was published in 1968. However, I didn’t read it until the mid-’70s—but I definitely remember the impact it had.
We were on a family vacation in 1970. Every time we pulled into a rest stop on the interstate, scores of garishly painted vehicles dotted the parking lot, invariably emblazoned with psychedelic doodlings.
Everyone who drove in those cars and vans that summer—a VW minibus was the status ride—had read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and everyone wanted to emulate the adventures of the Merry Pranksters, as chronicled by author Tom Wolfe.
Who were the Pranksters? A band of untamed spirits led by the late Ken Kesey (author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion), they traveled across America in a wildly painted bus named “Furthur,” dropping LSD prolifically in an unstructured but highly motivated quest for transcendence. Their journey, which Wolfe observed firsthand, arguably spawned the hippie movement. In fact, The New York Times called Acid Test the “essential” book on hippies.
My dad, a former captain in the US Marine Corps, was appalled by the jamboree of freaks taking a break from the road around us, with their long hair, beards, beads and costumes of every imaginable design. “What is happening to this country?” he wondered.
Well, Dad, whatever it was, it happened. But ironically, the hippie movement—which was followed by Watergate, Reagan’s War on Drugs, AIDS, 9/11, the Great Recession and the rise of the billionaire politician/asshole—turned out to be a high point for America. Of course, it hasn’t been all bad since then, though it may seem that way at times.
Thankfully, the passing of years hasn’t diminished the impact of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. For those who have dropped acid—or are contemplating a trip—the book is staggeringly accurate about the experience. But the pure, unadulterated freedom that the Merry Pranksters practiced is the real hook. Kesey and company’s explorations and revelations electrified a generation nearly a half-century ago—and they can still have the same effect today.
Now a beautiful new limited collectors’ edition, signed by Tom Wolfe, has just been released by Taschen Books. Published in traditional letterpress, it includes facsimile reproductions of Wolfe’s manuscript pages, as well as Ken Kesey’s jailhouse journals, handbills and underground magazines of the period.
Interweaving the prose and ephemera are photographic essays by Lawrence Schiller, whose coverage of the acid scene for Life magazine helped inspire Wolfe to write his story, and Ted Streshinsky, who accompanied Wolfe while reporting for the New York Herald Tribune.
These photographs—together with those of poet Allen Ginsberg and other photographers who covered the scene—paint a vivid picture of the countercultural world that Wolfe’s book chronicles: acid parties near “Capsule Corner” in Hollywood; the hippie-filled streets of Haight-Ashbury; the abandoned pie factory that the Pranksters called home; and the infamous Acid Tests, Kool-Aid and all.
Will you take the Acid Test? Even if you don’t, this reading experience is totally psychedelic!
Go to taschen.com to purchase the book. Only 1,768 numbered copies available.
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